“Read. Debate. Celebrate.”

That’s the credo of the first-ever Oakland Book Festival, a free, public event “dedicated to books, ideas and the pleasures of literacy” to be held May 31 at Oakland City Hall.

Oakland Book Fest photo

But you don’t have to wait until then to satisfy your curiosity. On Thursday, March 5, the festival will hold a special launch event, “Reading Oakland,” in downtown Oakland — and it’s also free and open to the public. The program will feature short excerpts from literature about, or set in, Oakland. I am very pleased to have been asked to recite a poem as part of the event. Other readers will be Desley Brooks, Vikram Chandra, Gary Kamiya, Nayomi Munaweera and Zac Unger. Festival co-directors Kira Brunner Don and Timothy Don — who have spent the last seven years creating and directing Lapham’s Quarterly, a journal of history and ideas — will also be there.

I admit I’m a bit intimidated to be in the company of such talent. Brooks was recently re-elected to a seat on Oakland’s City Council, where she has represented District 6 for 13 years. Chandra, who divides his time between Mumbai and Berkeley, teaches creative writing at Cal and is a nonfiction writer. Oakland-born Kamiya is a writer/editor as well as a columnist at Salon.com, which he co-founded. Oakland-based Munaweera’s first novel is “Islands of a Thousand Mirrors” and she’s currently working on her second. And Unger, who’s been with the Oakland Fire Department as a firefighter and paramedic since 1998, has written two nonfiction books, including “Never Look a Polar Bear in the Eye: A Family Field Trip to the Arctic’s Edge in Search of Adventure, Truth and Mini-Marshmallows.”

Festival organizers Kira and Timothy Don say they want the event to celebrate the City of Oakland and to encourage debate. They already have plans to make it an annual event. More than 60 writers will be in attendance, discussing gentrification, diversity, tolerance, labor, whistle-blowing and prayer.

Just outside City Hall, in Frank Ogawa Plaza, there will be a dedicated children’s area that will feature readings hosted by the Oakland Public Library, book-making projects sponsored by Oakland’s Museum of Children’s Art, and interactive storytelling programs courtesy of Children’s Fairyland. Book vendors and publishers will have tables with merchandise for sale; food trucks will be parked nearby.

“We want to make it possible for adults to bring kids to the festival because we want children to discover as early as possible the thrills of reading and the joys of storytelling,” say Kira and Timothy, who are raising their young children in Oakland after having lived in New York for over a decade.

I asked them: Why Oakland for this ambitious festival?

Their emailed reply: “What was the last city you visited that was sparkling with as much promise, blessed with as much natural beauty, and filled with as many active, engaged, energetic and curious people as Oakland?”

Join us to kick off the first annual Oakland Book Festival at 7 p.m. Thursday, March 5, at Cafe Van Kleef, 1621 Telegraph Ave.

Here is the poem I’ll be reading, Joaquin Miller’s lovely ode to Oakland. Its last word — Arcady — refers to an ideal, rustic paradise. Oakland isn’t there yet, but reading, debating and celebrating might help get us there sooner.

by Joaquin Miller

Thou rose-land! Oakland! thou, mine own!
Thou sun-land! leaf-land! land of seas
Wide crescented in walls of stone!
Thy lion’s mane is to the breeze!
Thy tawny, sunlit lion steeps
Leap forward, as the lion leaps!
And thou, the lion’s whelp, begot
Of Argonauts, in fearful strength
And supple beauty yieldeth naught!
Thine arm is as a river’s length.
Thy reach is foremost! Thou shalt be
The throned queen of this vast west sea!
Yet here sits peace; and rest sits here;
These wide-boughed oaks, they house wise men:
The student and the sage austere,
The men of wondrous thought and ken.
Here men of God in holy guise
Invoke the peace of paradise.
Be this my home till some fair star
Stoops earthward and shall beckon me:
For surely Godland lies not far
From these Greek heights and this great sea.
My friend, my lover, trend this way;
Not far along lies Arcady.

Editor’s Note: This piece reflects an individual opinion and is not a reported story from Oakland Local. Oakland Local invites community residents to share their views about events and issues in Oakland.For guidelines, see: http://oaklandlocal.com/guidelines.

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